London. I’d never particularly wanted to go London. Once upon a time I had no desire to travel except to see New York from the top of the Empire State Building (something which I came to find an utter disappointment.) So after years of saying I wasn’t interested, how exactly did I end up here? How did London suddenly become an option? And how did all my plans manage to come crashing down just before I got on the plane?
After three trips to the US between 2008 and 2010 I decided to make a bigger move in 2011 and got myself into a Graduate Exchange visa program for 12 months. The visa would allow me to travel around the USA, work wherever I went, for whoever I wanted. Unlike other visas this was incredibly flexible. It was also a pilot program. There were only about 30 of us from Australia in the country on that visa at the time, which created it’s own pros and cons. I didn’t think I’d have to move around, I knew what I wanted. New York City.
But four months into the move I didn’t have a job, was heavily in debt to my parents, hadn’t made any new friends in the city, and was on the verge of moving back to Australia. New York City had failed me, and I now loathed the city I’d once loved. Loathe is a strong word, I think I was utterly disappointed that I couldn’t crack it. That I couldn’t break into the industry.
The visa was redeemed though by a chance gig in Chicago which saw me move to the Windy City. When the gig ended I had a choice, go back to Australia or fight on. It was the first time I’d lived out of home and I was also a long way from home. The safety net was a 20 hour plane trip back to Australia. That didn’t seem like a legitimate option to me. If home had been an hour drive away, I probably would never have made it to Chicago. I wouldn’t have stayed in New York longer than a month. I fought on.
I worked ridiculous hour weeks across two shows for months on end to regain my finances, to get on top of things, and push towards a personal goal. When my shows wound up in Chicago, one wanted to take me on the road, but I wanted to stay. I’d made the decision to stay in Chicago months earlier before I got the gigs. It was all part of some grand plan I had. My visa ended, I utilised the 30 day travel period after it ended to explore, to travel more (I got the chance to visit Seattle, San Francisco and Boston one more time) and be around the friends I’d made and grown really close to. I managed to pick up a really bad case of the flu, and make some terrible personal choices that I’m not proud of, but in a sense that summarised my time in Chicago. It helped define what I wanted in life as an adult. It taught me you needed to fight for things you really wanted, not just fall back to safety.
London came about soon after I finished working on Margaret Fulton: Queen Of The Dessert. I was unhappy in Australia, the wanderlust was kicking in again. I had flights booked for the US in February, but wanted to get away for a longer period of time. I wanted new opportunities. Canada seemed to be the place to be. I began filling out application forms and getting police checks. Close to the US and my friends, easy to get a work visa. One morning I was talking to a friend of mine in the UK, a fellow producer, and he told me a show he was working on was coming to fruition. I’d always been passionate about the show he was producing and off the cuff asked if he needed anyone to help out. He said he could use an Assistant General Manager if I could get the visa.
I instantly applied. With Scottish heritage I qualified for a 5 year ancestry visa. I needed to be in the UK in January for the gig, could switch my flights currently booked for the US around easily enough, and thus was just waiting for Christmas, New Year and a series of other public holidays to get out of the way to have my visa approved.
This was a dream gig. A show I was mad for, on the West End, in another country, with the opportunity to continue living there for a long period of time.
I doubted London though. I’d never been interested in it. I was always “USA USA USA”, now here I was about to embark (visa pending) to the UK. In my mind London looked like the Eye, Big Ben and then a series of council flats, inhabited by gangs of teenagers all wanting to stab me. I’d watched too much of The Bill growing up, I’m sure.
Christmas passed, New Year passed, and finally I heard back from my visa application. Approved. That was it, I was off. Another thing I’d learnt in the US (after hauling around 3 suitcases) was to pack light. I now travelled minimally, and spent the next two weeks before I left Australia (yes the entire turn around for this whole snap decision to move to London happened in just over a month) convincing my mother that I could fit everything I needed in a hand luggage case and back pack. Sure enough I could.
The day my visa was approved I got further news. The show I had a gig on would not be going ahead. It was devastating news. My parents immediately freaked out. Questions were raised as to whether I would continue on to London, but it was a set decision in my mind. Why would I waste the visa? Of course I was going. And as I’d learnt in the US, I’d just need to fight hard upon arrival to make it work.
It was a big risk. I probably didn’t have enough money in my bank account to make it work. In all truthfulness I, personally, didn’t. Once again I’ve moved to another country and put myself into debt with my parents. But when opportunity come knocking, you can’t just take a back seat. You have to do whatever you can to make it work. Still, I probably didn’t have enough money to last more than two months.
I started milking networks in Australia to see if anyone knew of any gigs, and I did the same with contacts in the UK. No luck. I had a place to stay, so that helped, but I’d need to find a place of my own. Plus starting from scratch in a country is never easy- to get a bank account here you need an address, to get an address you need a job, to get money from the job you need a bank account. It’s a circle that seems impossible to get into.
I arrived in London at 5am on the 17th of January. That afternoon I wandered it’s streets for the first time. I was surprised at how close everything was. I loved the old buildings, and that a modern city was being run from within them. A specific culture was operating here. Every street wound somewhere, and often I was surprised to find myself facing somewhere I’d been moments earlier, even though I thought I was completely lost. I was falling hard for London already.
I had alternating shifts in my first few days in London- one day I’d explore, the next I’d apply for jobs. I repeated this for about a week. Progressively I got tired of applying for things. There’s only so much you can talk about yourself before you get cynical or bored. I must have applied for a good thirty positions in the first week, and I was fully expecting a month worth of searching.
In addition to theatre jobs, I put one application out for something a bit different (though it was advertised on a theatre jobs listing website) and to my surprise this was the one that got back to me. A front of house, customer interaction position, selling an attraction. The pay was good. The hours would be good. I needed work to be able to stay longer. With nothing to lose I went to the interview. Then to the second interview. Then got the job.
The quest continues for a house, but for now there’s the relief of a sense of stability. With a job I’m no longer thinking I might be on a plane home in a weeks time. Here I am. Here I’ll be for awhile.
When I found out the show wasn’t happening I could have thrown in the towel then. I could have stayed in Australia, I could have found another job there, I could have picked up gigs. But I was so disenchanted. My year in Australia reminded me why I loved working in theatre in America. Whilst I could easily work on a show in Aus, theatre was more of a hobby than a career move. I had to support myself with another job. In the US, when I made it to Chicago, I worked in theatre for the rest of the year, exclusively.
Now London could go either way. I now work in tourism, in somewhat of a marketing role. I sell the attraction. Everyone I work with is a performer, so I’m sure that will lead to opportunities. And my inbox is now getting responses about producing gigs. Time will tell how it will all go.
The important thing was though that I recognised I wasn’t happy any more. When an opportunity came up I took it. And when things turned for the worst, I didn’t let it get to me, I fought on. I took a big risk. I moved across to the other side of the world.
But you can be damn sure I’m going to make it work.